Since the publication of Neil A. Wynn's path-breaking study, The Afro-American and the Second World War in 1973, dozens of other historians have examined the impact of the war on African Americans. In this new book, Wynn masterfully synthesizes this literature, noting the continuities between African Americans' prewar experiences and their wartime and postwar experiences and pointing out the numerous ways in which the war changed the lives of African Americans.
Wynn briefly traces African American service in the U.S. military prior to World War II, noting that black soldiers received numerous commendations despite the fact that they were frequently relegated to service or support roles. He observes that rioting in the 1910s and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s reminded African Americans that the Great War had not fundamentally changed the racial order in the United States. In the 1920s and 1930s, many African [End Page 130] Americans joined organizations such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Communist Party with the goal of ending racial discrimination and violence.
Most of the book focuses on the events of the 1940s. Wynn points out that African American leaders failed to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to end segregation in the armed forces, but A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement convinced Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802. This order banned racial discrimination by military contractors and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Wynn concedes that the FEPC did not have the power to end discrimination completely, but he insists that its establishment was a significant precursor of later changes in federal policy. The military remained segregated throughout the war, but African American soldiers and African American organizations persistently protested both segregation and the mistreatment of African American soldiers.
The wartime labor shortage offered African Americans unprecedented economic opportunities. The need of manufacturers for workers eventually overrode their racial prejudices. The promise of good jobs lured hundreds of thousands of African Americans to northern and western cities, where they encountered persistent housing discrimination. The tensions surrounding housing led in part to rioting in Detroit in 1943. Wynn notes that the war inspired many African Americans to take action to end discrimination. Pauli Murray, for example, staged sit-ins at Washington, D.C., restaurants in 1943 and 1944, and activists affiliated with the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation organized the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942.
Wynn concludes by focusing on the immediate postwar years. He indicates that many African American veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights, although Lizabeth Cohen demonstrates in A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in America (2003) that discrimination seriously limited the benefits that African American veterans derived from this legislation. Many veterans [End Page 131] encountered violence when they returned to the South. More than twenty-five African Americans were killed in racially motivated incidents between 1945 and 1947. Wynn defends Truman's record on civil rights, pointing out that he supported a permanent FEPC and appointed a committee to study civil rights.
In addition to a thorough and concise synthetic narrative, this book contains a chronology of significant events in African American history from 1938 until 1948, forty pages of documents, and a seven-page annotated bibliography. The documents include excerpts from the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, William H. Hastie, and Walter White.
The brevity of this narrative and the chronology and documents should make this book ideal for assignment in courses in African American history when a paperback edition is published.
Kevin Allen Leonard teaches history at Western Washington University in Billingham, Washington. He is the author of The Battle for Los Angeles: Racial Ideology and World War II (2006) and is currently engaged in research on African Americans and the environment in post-World War II Southern California.